The Great British Brain Drain

Where graduates move and why

What is the scale of the graduate brain drain into London, and how can other cities bring back some of their most talented young people?

Report published on 21 November 2016 by Paul Swinney and Maire Williams


Attracting and retaining talent is increasingly critical for the success of city economies, but this is a big challenge for many of our cities. While the UK’s great universities are spread around the country, many graduates head straight for the bright lights of the capital after completing their studies.

London is not only more attractive to new graduates generally; it is especially attractive to high achievers. The capital accounts for around 19 per cent of all jobs. But six months after graduation, London employed 22 per cent of those graduates who moved city and were now in work, and 38 per cent of those new graduates who have a first or upper second class degree from a Russell Group university.

The patterns of graduate migration appear to be primarily driven by job opportunities. If a city wants to attract and retain a greater number of graduates, then it needs to support economic growth, rather than rely on narrower policies specifically targeted at graduate attraction and retention. Cities should aim to support the creation of more jobs, and particularly high-skilled knowledge jobs.

Flow of graduates moving in to London

Policy recommendations

1. Focus on educational attainment to improve skills throughout the workforce

Cities and their partners – including universities and businesses – should concentrate on increasing the supply and quality of home-grown talent. Efforts to increase educational attainment of residents and improve workforce development should take priority. Improving schools will also help make cities more attractive for skilled workers with young families.

2. Focus on the economic fundamentals

Cities need to ensure that the factors that underpin successful city economies are in place and working well. This involves:

  • a transport system that allows for efficient movement of goods and people around and in and out of the place;
  • a housing market that enables people (existing and new) to find somewhere to live that meets their expectations; and
  • a planning system that is adaptable and responsive to changing employment and residential trends and preferences.

3. Focus on helping to boost demand for high skilled workers among businesses

Cities and partners should coordinate efforts to boost demand for high skilled workers by concentrating on innovation, inward investment and enterprise policies. Importantly cities should ensure that any resources are being deployed to maximum effect, and regularly reviewed and evaluated to identify options for improvement.

4. Recognise that universities are important but not crucial

Those cities that have quality higher education institutions should look to make the most of them. Cities need to work with their universities and businesses to increase the demand for graduates, as well as helping graduates find existing graduate jobs. And those cities that do not have universities need to think carefully about the costs and benefits of trying to acquire one.



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